Each month for over a decade, Branden Read, chef and co-owner of Celestial Café in Exeter, has been hosting a local farm dinner series highlighting the seasonal bounty of Rhode Island’s farms, fisheries, and food purveyors like vineyards and creameries. Five courses and a craft cocktail are served in a spacious open dining room with wooden floors and nautically blue walls. When my friend and I visited, large picture windows doused the space with that perfect “magic hour” lighting.
Though the evening’s prix fixe farm dinner menu of a soup, salad, appetizer, entree, and dessert sounded like it would be plenty, our server provided us with an a la carte menu, too, just in case. After seeing Sweet Potato Wontons, we were sold on a bit of indulgence.
But first, drinks. Even these were local Rhode Island to the core, including an ale from Tilted Barn and a prosecco from Gooseneck Vineyards. The cocktail, called The First Encounter, was made with Sons of Liberty whiskey, mixed with honey liqueur, muddled mint, and a rhubarb-lime reduction. It tasted like a whiskey mojito. It was refreshing and perfect for day drinking, which is not usually how I think about whiskey.
The soup was an asparagus bisque, which was so outstandingly good, it deserves an ode: “This perfectly savory balance / of garlic and salt and fresh cream / extracts the essence of asparagus / better than I could have dreamed.” It takes a lot for asparagus to woo me into poetry. Chef Branden won me over at course one. Our second plate was a light and refreshing salad with feta, pickled beets, and a lemon and olive oil dressing that I would love to buy in bottled form.
The appetizer also featured asparagus, along with shiitake and portobello mushrooms, sauteed in chili oil and served with rice dumpling pasta. The spiciness of this course complemented our add-on Sweet Potato Wontons, which I highly recommend. Mark said it’s one of the most popular appetizers. “I’ll go to check on a table and the wontons will already be gone,” he explains. “People eat them like candy.”
The main dish – a smoked brisket, shredded and topped with pickled slaw, green garlic mayo, and housemade BBQ sauce on a toasted brioche bun – is served with a green onion, saffron, dill, and turmeric potato salad. Simply put, it’s the definition of “elevated comfort food.” I felt transported to my youth, eating Sloppy Joes in my backyard, except this was a refined adult experience. That brisket! I’d like to start a petition to make it a permanent menu item.
To end, we had Rhubarb Meringue Pie, which I could have sworn was topped with toasted marshmallows instead of meringue. Light and sweet, it was the kind of dessert you can trick yourself into eating even when you’re full because it’s not too heavy. It was the perfect way to conclude our meal.
If I had to rate this dinner on a scale, I would say Celestial Café earns its name: I’d give it all the stars.